Student response to the recent announcement that transfers into the two new residential colleges will be randomly placed into either Pauli Murray or Benjamin Franklin college has shown that Yale’s campus is not of one mind on the significance of a college’s name to its community.
When its name was announced last April, Pauli Murray College — which honors civil rights activist and 20th century intellectual Anna Pauline Murray LAW ’65 — became the first residential college named after a woman or a person of color. Under the shadow of a yearlong debate over the name of Calhoun College, the decision to pair Murray with Benjamin Franklin drew condemnation from students who were both confused by the choice to recognize an individual who did not attend the University and disappointed by the Yale Corporation’s decision to honor another slave-owning white male.
Though the two new colleges are comparable in terms of both size and facilities, their namesakes are different enough that students interviewed disagreed over the relative merits of the two colleges, with some preferring placement in Murray over Benjamin Franklin — a preference that will not be taken into account, per an Oct. 13 email from Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway regarding the transfer process.
While Holloway acknowledged last week that some students may prefer to live in Murray over Benjamin Franklin, both Holloway and Head of Benjamin Franklin College Charles Bailyn ’81 said Franklin’s legacy makes him a good role model for Yale students.
But of 21 students interviewed, only one told the News they would prefer to be placed into [Bemjamin] Franklin over Murray. Nine students reported a preference for Pauli Murray College, and 11 students reported they would have no preference for either college were they to transfer. Furthermore, as the placement by lottery in the new colleges will be nonbinding, some students told the News they would opt out of the transfer process if placed into Benjamin Franklin.
“If it turns out that some people, when they discover they are in Franklin rather than in Murray, are unhappy about that, part of my job is to talk them into it,” said Bailyn, a professor of astronomy and physics. “I hope that we would be able to persuade people that it is going to be a really exciting experience whichever college you end up in.”
Bailyn added that he believes the controversy over the namesake of Calhoun College was more divisive than anything related to the names of the new colleges. Although he had no preference to be the head of one college over another, Bailyn said he has made an effort to read more about Franklin since his appointment to the position and is now excited to lead the college.
Head of Pauli Murray College Tina Lu echoed Bailyn’s respect for Franklin and said Franklin’s role as the publisher of major newspapers is particularly important to think about in the context of current political discourse.
“If we’re going to criticize people after whom the colleges are named, Franklin would probably be near the bottom of the list,” said Lu, a professor of East Asian languages & literature. “In this year especially, people would feel that print media is so important in preserving our democracy. In this kind of climate, naming something after Franklin seems quite timely.”
Both college heads agreed that the names should not play a significant role in shaping a college’s culture.
Lu said although she plans to reflect on the namesake by organizing reading groups focused on the life and influence of Murray, she emphasized that Murray herself will not be the central force in the college’s identity.
Yet many students who said they favor Murray College over Benjamin Franklin College pointed to the importance of Murray’s identity as the primary reason they would want to join the college.
“She is an important figure for visibility for queer women of color, and I think that’s important for Yale, more so than Franklin, who is similar to a lot of the other honorees of other buildings and Yale events,” said Sara Harris ’19.
THE LAST NEW COLLEGES
Yale has not had to deal with the issue of transfers to new residential colleges since 1961, when upperclassmen helped fill in the ranks of the newly opened Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges. But despite the familiar position, the controversy over placement preference is new.
Richard Holbrook ’63, who transferred from Saybrook into Morse in 1961, said he never encountered anything similar to the current naming complexities surrounding the new residential colleges.
“I just thought it would be interesting to join the new colleges. I didn’t have any preference whether it was Morse or Stiles,” said Holbrook. “I think we were just out to try something new and expand our acquaintanceships among other students.”
Yale’s cultural climate and the issues pertinent to the student body have shifted since the early 1960s.
“In those days, of course, there were just men in the colleges … We didn’t have girls, so the whole subject [of social issues] began 10 years later,” said David Rosenberg ’63 LAW ’73, who transferred into the newly founded Morse College from Davenport College. He added that transferring into Morse entailed a “straightforward, simple application process.”
Rosenberg noted that although he had been “perceived back then as very liberal, almost radical, for Yale terms,” due to his involvement in the 1961 and 1962 sit-ins in the American South, he said that as an older alumnus he was “oblivious” to the current naming controversies surrounding Bemjamin Franklin College.
Part of the controversy stems from the fact that Charles Johnson ’54, who in 2013 donated $250 million toward the construction of both new residential colleges, requested that one college be named Benjamin Franklin out of his own admiration for Franklin.
Similarly, the single student interviewed who said he would prefer to be placed in Benjamin Franklin cited the Founding Father as a role model.
“I personally regard Franklin as one of my role models in many ways, [as] he is a historical figure that I really respect, and, to be honest, I don’t know that much about Murray,” the student, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I don’t know too much about the controversy. I wasn’t here last year. I was in the military and I just came back, so I’m one of the unusual cases.”
Current students said they would rather be in Murray to avoid the emotionally taxing dialogue about slavery, racism and naming they expect will happen regularly in Benjamin Franklin.
Many of the students who signaled no preference for either college reasoned that there was not yet enough information available about the colleges’ respective cultures to make an informed decision about which residential college they would prefer. Most respondents in this category regarded both colleges as blank slates with equal potential.
“I don’t really know anything about what either college will have in terms of facilities, or what the student culture will be like,” said Matthew Matejka ’19.
MORE THAN JUST NAMES
But for other students, the names of the new colleges are less important than their locations on campus.
“I just prefer to go to Benjamin Franklin over Murray because I’m a science major and that’s one of the colleges that will be closer to most of my classes, and also since Benjamin Franklin College is a little bit closer to the main campus,” said Jay Mondal ’19. Mondal added that “some people I know are a little bit angry about the naming — that’s understandable, and I kind of agree with it. I didn’t really expect Benjamin Franklin to be part of Yale, that’s more of a [University of Pennsylvania] kind of thing. But at the end of the day, the name is not a big deal personally for me, though it may be for other people.”
While many students expressed concern that the new colleges would draw a disproportionate number of science majors who would benefit from the proximity to Science Hill, Bailyn was optimistic that both colleges would, much like the existing 12 colleges, represent a cross-section of the student body. He speculated that students who spend much of their time in extracurricular groups, like athletes and artists, might want to transfer into the new colleges as groups and added that some students might be drawn to the new colleges by the opportunity to shape traditions and create new communities.
“All these things play off against each other,” Bailyn said. “If we get some of each of those, it will work out pretty well.”
But the realities of student transfers may be difficult to predict. Julia Adams, head of Calhoun College, said not all the reasons behind a student’s decision to transfer are necessarily political — some have to do with convenience, others have to do with Yalies’ friendship patterns. In the midst of calls for the renaming of Calhoun last year, more students chose to transfer into Calhoun than out.
Adams added that the number of students transferring out of their current college next year needs to be significantly higher compared to past years in order to fill the new colleges. But if the current transfer trends — which tend to hover in the single digits for each college — continue, Adams said filling the colleges may be a challenge.
The new colleges will start accepting online transfer applications from current Yale students in mid-December.